#26 Cowslip


Cowslips , Primula veris, are a variety of primrose, so named because they were commonly found in fields enriched by cow dung although Ann Pratt quotes Ben Jonson to assert that the name is derived from "cow's lips" and refers to the "soft velvety texture" of the leaves (21).[1]  Early-blooming like most primroses, they flower atop a stalk growing out of a basal rosette made up of crinkled, slightly hairy leaves.  Cowslips typically have butter yellow flowers, marked with slight drops of red-orange.  The flowers are encased in a green sheath, so appear more trumpet-like and less open than other primroses, which come in a much wider variety of colors.  In addition, instead of being arrayed around a central axis, cowslip blossoms tend to cluster on one side and hang down looking like “a medieval bunch of keys,” which accounts for other common names: key flower, key of heaven, and lady’s keys.[2] According to Folkard, in Kent they are known more romantically as “fairy cups”  (161). 

Cowslips occur so frequently in British literature that Ward characterizes them as “a staple of both literature and the English countryside” (305). Heilmeyer notes that “for Shakespeare the primrose was a symbol of frivolity and thoughtlessness” (70), quoting the Porter’s warning about “the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire” in Macbeth (Act 2, scene 3). In addition, Ophelia’s reference to “the primrose path of dalliance” in Hamlet (Act 1, scene 3, l. 51) has become an oft-quoted idiom. But Shakespeare also celebrates the fanciful and magic aspects of cowslips, as in this song from Midsummer Night’s Dream, which shows a careful observation of the red spots which often speckle the interior of the cowslip’s trumpet:

I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear. (Act 2, scene 1)

Ward goes on to provide a partial list of British literary cowslips including Milton (he leaves out “Lycidas”: “cowslips wan that hang the pensive head” l. 147), Izaak Walton, and John Clare (Ward 302-4), also omitting Keats’ “Endymion” and Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis.”

Referring to cowslips ten times -- six times in essays, three times in letters and diaries, and once in her fiction -- Woolf often exhibits a proprietorial attitude towards their rich British heritage, sometimes pairing them with bluebells or violets to create a vivid visual contrast.

Two mentions of cowslips in early reviews associate the flowers with bygone rural traditions.  In a review of a 1920 biography of Mary Russell Mitford, Woolf links cowslips and bluebells with the romantic rural life described in Mitford's Our Village, although she asserts that Mitford would have preferred to write in a more heroic genre: “If she had had her way she would have deserted the bluebells and the cowslips and written nothing but high tragedy”  (E3 214). [3]  And in her essay on James Woodforde (1927; later revised as “Two Parsons” in The Second Common Reader) she decries the dullness of the “sixty-eight little books” that comprise his diary by denying the superiority of a time when “one called cowslips pagles” (E5 417, 422).

Despite these early dismissals, in the thirties Woolf seems more appreciative of the charms of cowslips. A trip to France in 1931 elicits some delight. On April 24, she writes Ethyl Smyth about “the amazing loveliness of France,” and describes “a violent scramble along the banks of the Dronne (I think) which are blue, yellow, and suddenly purple; with bluebells, cowslips and gentians” (L4 321, 320). The next day she records in her diary the same experience of walking with Leonard by a deep, romantic river near Montaigne’s home, enjoying “an Elizabethan meadow -- cowslips, bluebells” before a sudden thunderstorm drives them inside (D4, 22). Although any Shakespearean connection here is tenuous at best, a few pages/days later, stopping for lunch at a restaurant recommended by Leonard’s younger sister but in her estimation an expensive “glorified. .  . teashop,” she makes rather contemptuous fun of the “usual fake; amusing; American” who says “of the cowslips ‘Look at these baby primroses -- aren’t they cute?’” (D4 24) with a kind of nationalistic pride in being able to recognize the subspecies.

The fact that cowslips were on Woolf’s mind in 1931 is also shown in a February 1932 review of the diary of one Rev. William Cole, friend of Horace Walpole.  Lamenting the stodgy lack of verve which does not enliven his account of life in eighteenth-century England, she begins her “Letter” to the diarist suggesting that his Englishness made him out of place in France: “you were as much out of place in Paris as a cowslip impaled upon the diamond horns of a duchess’s tiara” (E5 289). A few sentences later, however, she retracts her floral simile, suggesting that Cole’s lack of imaginative creativity makes him unworthy of the comparison: “ You are not a cowslip.  You do not bloom” (E5 289).

Woolf’s last mentions of cowslips also recall historical contexts. In her 1940 review of Oliver Sitwell’s account of two generations of female relations, “Georgiana and Florence,” she describes the rural tranquility life in the 1830’s:” Georgiana had wandered out with her pet lambs following her and the deer, into the park, where the violets and the cowslips used to grow (E6 256), but by the time of Georgiana's death the railroad has arrived and “girls are no longer modest; the poor no longer virtuous; the violets have gone and the cowslips. The end of the world has come” (E6 257).

Woolf’s farewell to cowslips in her last novel, Between the Acts, incorporates several of the plant’s traditional connections. They appear in a pageant delineating the course of British history, specifically in the section parodying an eighteenth-century restoration drama. After her niece Flavinda has eloped with her lover Valentine, foiling Lady Harpy Harraden’s scheme to marry her to Sir Spaniel Liverwort and steal her inheritance, Lady H.H. proposes that she and Sir S.L. renew their long-ago flirtation by marrying each other: “But we that have bound our wrists with cowslips might join ’em with a stouter chain” (BTA 99), a reference to binding and chains that brings up folkloric associations between cowslips and keys. Her suit, however, is roundly rejected, the flower of her youth having faded much as cowslips have since vanished from the fields.  The loss of cowslips is the loss of her world.

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] Ben Jonson, Pan’s Anniversary, l. 12.
[3] Woolfians will remember that Lady Mary Russell Mitford also makes a major appearance in Woolf’s 1933 dog biography Flush as the person who gives Flush to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Mitford’s life is vividly described in Chapter One, set in her fictional town of Three Mile Cross with a good deal of emphasis on the selfishness of Mitford’s “mongrel “father whose profligacy forced his daughter into supporting him thru her writing (F 9).
[4] The National Wildlife Trust of Britain notes that the range of cowslips has been much diminished over the years: “Formerly a common plant of traditional hay meadows, ancient woodlands and hedgerows, the loss of these habitats has caused a serious decline in its populations and now fields coloured bright yellow with its nodding heads are a rare sight.” https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/cowslip

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...